Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Blog: Is This Gluten Free?

It has been three weeks since I started eating gluten free. So far I've eliminated all the obvious sources of gluten in my diet. You know, all those delicious things at the bottom of the food pyramid: pasta, bread, crackers, and heavenly things like cinnamon buns. But what about those sneaky foods that aren't at the bottom of the food pyramid?

For obvious reasons, trying to determine if a food is gluten free in Korea is not simple if you can't understand Korean. You can find English food labels on imported foods. However, even then many foods are processed on shared equipment with gluten products or they include gluten as an additive or there are other ingredients mixed in that contain gluten. And this doesn't make reading labels for gluten any easier. For instance, I recently purchased some salami and prosciutto at Costco. A lot of their inventory is just the exact same thing that you find at an American Costco but with a Korean nutrition information sticker slapped on the back, so virtually everything on the packaging is in English. Looking at the ingredients, the salami states in tiny print at the bottom of the English nutrition label that it is indeed, "gluten free." The prosciutto, however, does not. But neither meat mentions any ingredients that would even hint at gluten. They are both produced by the same company, Daniele Foods in Rhode Island, and they have identical ingredients but for one thing — the prosciutto has garlic. Last time I knew, garlic was naturally gluten free. The only other option would be the unspecified "spices" that both meats contain. Presumably, the proscutto's spices include gluten — terrific. But I don't know for sure, and being a good, cheap Yankee who doesn't waste food and isn't allergic to gluten, I'm still going to eat it.

This process is annoying enough in English. Now, try standing in the refridgerated isle at Lotte Mart with your smart phone in one hand and a sausage in the other trying to translate the ingredient label. Even if you study Korean, without the aid of a fluent native, this is a chore and a half. I can read and write well enough, but my vocabulary is deplorable, and like any language, Korean words have multiple meanings, slang uses and abbreviations unknown to the best translation apps. And I certainly don't want to stand around in the isle for five minutes per label, translating everything I want to eat. I have far better things to do with my time, like walk home and eat.

Western stickers, though, at least have "gluten free" labels to help. Korean foods, on the other hand, from what I have seen, do not. "Gluten free" in Korean is "글루텐 프리." It is basically a Korean spelling that sounds like one of my students trying to pronounce English. I've lived in Korea for nearly four years, and in that time I have never seen those words on Korean packaging. It can be argued that, in not needing to eat gluten free, I just never looked for it. This is true. However, when I first started talking to my Korean friends about eating gluten free they did not know what it was. Plus, for dietary and genetic reasons Koreans rarely develop gluten related health issues. As a result, they have no need to label things "gluten free." The gluten free diet is largely a Western trend. However, that doesn't mean I'm going to stop looking for 글루텐 프리. I could be wrong. We'll see.

Given these difficulties, as I enter this diet I'm a bit paranoid. Many people who are sensitive to gluten do not need to worry about things like cross contamination. Others, who are affected more severely by gluten, really have to watch out. I have heard about people who are so sensitive that they can't even kiss someone who has eaten wheat. A casual gluten-free diet is easy enough in Korea. One expat teacher I interviewed, Kelsey Riordan, does not have celiac disease but needs to avoid eating gluten for other health reasons, and she manages just fine by eating like a Korean minus wheat noodles and dumplings. But let's suppose that I took on the role of that person who can't even kiss bready lips without risking stomach aches or worse. Just what can I eat? If the smallest amount of gluten is harmful to me am I munching my way across a minefield of glutenated doom? With this mindset, and mindful of the fact that many processed foods contain gluten, a number of foods from my daily life are making me think twice about whether they are gluten free or not.

- Gummy vitamins. A bunch of nutrients are sourced from different places and compressed in a squishy, fruit-flavored teddy-bear-shaped substrate. Can you get more processed than a muli-vitamin?

- Soy. Soy is everywhere in Korean cuisine. It is an essential part of so many soups, stews, sauces, side dishes, and main courses. In additon to rice and red pepper, Korean food wouldn't be Korean without soy. Soy itself doesn't have gluten. It only gains it through processing. So do Korean soy processing plants also process wheat on the same equipment?

- Rice bread. Rice bread is fairly popular in Korea. Though, having grown up on wheat, I was never much impressed with rice breads. Rice breads tend to be bland and dry and simply do not have the same texture and bounce of wheat bread. There are some exceptions, but nothing a Frenchman would feel uncomfortable tossing in the bin. But are they gluten free? Given the amount that raw ingredients are processed and rice bread's marginal attempt at being decent bread, who is to say those breads don't have gluten in them? They need all the help they can get.

- Bubble tea. My girlfriend and I have been on a big bubble tea kick lately. Bubble tea pearls are made from tapioca, but is that all that is in there?

- Packaged nuts. I bought a large bag of mixed nuts to munch on at school. It was meant to save money spent daily on chips and to reduce the calories collected daily above my belt. At the same time, it's a snack with enough energy to push me through six hours of playing with elementary and middle-school kids. There is more to those nuts, and lots of nuts mixes in Korea, than just nuts. These ones in particular have an unadvertised dusting of mystery dusty dust on them. It's tasty, but is it gluten free?

- Coffee. Right now I'm drinking a vanilla latte. Straight coffee is fine. My brother, a celiac suffering Starbucks barista extraordinaire, lives on coffee. But are mixed coffee drinks okay?

- Street food. Korea has terrific street food. Some, like tuigim (튀김 - deep fried food), are obviously not gluten free. However, others like tteok-bokki (떡볶이 - chewy, penne pasta sized rice cakes in spicy sauce) are not so clear. Rice cake itself may be gluten free, but what if the rice was cross-contaminated by wheat in processing? Plus, I have no idea what is in the sauce besides red pepper.

- Chocolate and candies. This is another one of those cases where the primary ingredient is naturally gluten free, but you don't know if that ingredient was cross contaminated, or if gluten or a gluten containing ingredient was added into the mix at some point.

- Drinks. Basically my entire diet is geared around keeping me energized enough to put on the equivalent of a lively and interactive Ted Talk with overworked children during the hours when, in America, kids are eating dinner, playing, or finishing their homework. Water just doesn't cut it. Normally I brew my own black or green tea at home and bring it to class honey-sweetened. There is nothing unusual about my tea except sometimes some bergamot, but that's gluten free. Sometimes, however, I forget to brew my tea or my energies are such that I need a big boost that day, and I buy a Cola or more often a Gatorade or a Nature Tea. Are these gluten free? And what about that glass of OJ in the morning? Could that have gluten in it too? Is it purely orange juice?

- Cheese. When I started eating gluten free the first food that came to mind was cheese. Real cheese, which is most likely gluten free, is depressingly expensive in Korea. Three cheese omelettes worth of cheddar will set you back ₩8,000. This is around $7.50. Affordable cheese is out there, but it is so processed that at least one brand boasts of containing a jaw dropping 83.5 percent "natural" cheese. How much of that remaining percent may be gluten? (Or, for that matter, food?)

- Beer and soju. I don't drink as much as I used to, so this is less of an issue for me. But living in a country that, as a nation, drinks enough every day to crown Jinro soju as the most consumed alcohol in the world, drinking now and then is hard to avoid. Beer is clearly not gluten free. However, in Korea, where the local mass produced beers taste more like a certain human excretion than even American industrial beers, it is often claimed that Korean beer is disgusting because it is made with rice. Is it really? And is soju, the rice spirit of choice, pure enough to be free of any cross contaminants?

- Is communion gluten free? I heard it wasn't. But I also heard about a group of nuns somewhere in the US that make a 99.9% gluten free wafer. But that is in the USA. This is Korea. Is there a similar option here? Can you just take the wine instead? And would the church be kind enough to let you take the first sip or use a different challace to prevent cross-contamination?
I have a lot of translating and research to do.

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